Joe "Tricky Sam" Nanton, a member of Duke Ellington's famed trombone section for nearly two decades, exemplified and advanced the plunger-mute style of early trombone playing. Nanton's playing usually featured very simple melodic phrasing and a level of expressivity unrivaled by most of his contemporaries. Nanton was able to produce a wide variety of expressive effects on the trombone beyond the "wa-wa" tradition, including horse-like whinnies and a "ya-ya" effect which very closely imitated the sound of the human voice.
Nanton was born Joseph N. Irish on February 1st, 1904. The son of West Indian immigrants, he grew up in the San Juan Hill neighborhood of Manhattan. Nanton appreciated the educational opportunities afforded to him in New York City and excelled academically. In his later years with Ellington, he was well-known among his fellow musicians for being well-read in a number of academic subjects including astronomy, psychology and atsronomy, as well as being eager and articulate in discussions about current events and politics.
He began playing professionally in New York City in 1921 with Cliff Jackson. He worked with Earl Frazier's Harmony Five from 1923-1925, and joined Elmer Snowden in 1925. His first recordings came with Snowden's "Get Happy Band" later that year, alongside Sidney Bechet on clarinet. Like most brass musicians of this era, Nanton traveled, sat in and gigged with a trumpet player. Nanton's "traveling twosome" partner was Louis Metcalf.
In 1926, Duke Ellington recruited Nanton to join his band. Nanton, however, was reluctant, because he did not want to replace his friend and fellow trombone plunger pioneer Charlie Irvis. Ellington insisted, however, and Nanton began playing in the band two weeks after the invitation. Metcalf joined shortly thereafter.
Once he joined the Ellington band, Nanton became fiercly loyal to Ellington and the rest of the group. He refused even to play as a sideman for others, choosing only to play with the Ellington band or its small-group subsidiaries. Once he established himself as one of the group's mainstays, Nanton quickly became one of the most-featured soloists in the ensemble.
Nanton earned his nickname, "Tricky Sam," during his first years with Ellington. There are two conflicting stories about the nickname's origins, neither having to do with Nanton's trombone technique (a common misconception.) One story goes that Nanton consistently beat his bandmates at poker, and became known as "tricky with a deck of cards." The other is that saxophonist Toby Hardwick always saw him "doing with one hand what someone else would do with two -- he was tricky that way."
Early Ellington recordings especially highlight Nanton's presence in the band. Examples include"Washington Wobble," the Okeh Records version of "Black and Tan Fantasy" as well as the Brunswickand Victor versions, as well as "The Blues With a Feelin'," all of which feature Nanton as a soloist.
\Some Ellington tracks which utilize Nanton only as a section player include the Bubber Miley features"East St. Louis Toodle-oo" and "The Mooche," and "Move Over," which features guitarist Lonnie Johnson.
Nanton's solo on "Blues With a Feelin'" is a good example of his enormous open-horn sound. Nanton took more open-horn solos earlier on in his career, in which evidence of Charlie Green's influence is evident. "Black and Tan Fantasy," one of Ellington's best-known early compositions, features Nanton extensively providing a countermelody as well as an excellent solo showing of his plunger technique. In addition to the "wa wa" effect, Nanton often plays with the plunger tight against the bell, creating a thin, restrained sound that is released when he opens the plunger. "Black and Tan Fantasy" also features the "whinny" effect -- closely imitating a horse's whinny -- for which he became well-known in live performances.
Nanton's voice on the trombone is one of the sounds of early jazz that is still imitated by today's musicians. The unique sound required a great deal of technical proficiency, especially with regard to air speed and volume. In fact, Nanton once blew so hard into his horn during one of his solos that the tuning slide on the back of his trombone burst off of the instrument and flew into the trumpet section. He was able to play it off as a gag for the audience; still, the event illustrates the powerful force behind his playing.
By the early 1930s, Nanton had established himself as an irreplaceable part of the Ellington band both musically and socially. His unique style combined with his continued dedication to Ellington's band enabled him to continue as one of the featured members of the ensemble. Juan Tizol joined Nanton in 1929 to form a trombone section, a rare occurrence in jazz at the time. Nanton still played most of the solos in his unique way, as can be heard on "St. James Infirmary," "Mood Indigo," and "Jungle Nights in Harlem," all recorded in 1930, and the hit "It Don't Mean A Thing If It Ain't Got That Swing," recorded in 1932. Nanton is also heard alongside Tizol on the 1930 recording of "Sing You Sinners."
Lawrence Brown joined Nanton and Tizol in the Ellington trombone section in 1932, the first three-trombone section to appear in any of the jazz ensembles of the era. This instrumentation, along with the unique talents of each of the three trombonists, gave the band a unique sound and expanded Ellington's pallette for composition, allowing him to write for the trombones as a musical voice separate from the trumpets. The section can be heard on the 1933 recordings of "Sophisticated Lady," which features a solo by Lawrence Brown, and "Daybreak Express," recorded in 1933, and "Caravan," recorded in 1937, which features Tizol.
Brown's arrival in the band changed Nanton's role in the orchestra to a certain degree. Brown, whose ebullient and virtuosic swing style contrasted with Nanton, was often featured as well; for example, on the 1940 recording of "Flamingo" and 1943's "Do Nothing 'Til You Hear From Me." Brown also played the lead voice in the trombone section parts, such as "Sepia Panorama," recorded live in 1940.
Still, Nanton maintained the blues feeling for the section, and was featured prominently on those numbers that called for his unique brand of talkative trombonisms. Examples of his later solo work include "Harlem Air Shaft," "Across the Tracks Blues," "Jack the Bear" and "Ko-Ko" in 1940.
Ill health forced him to take a leave of absence from the ensemble for parts of 1944 and 1945, but he returned to the group for a final tour in 1946. He died in San Francisco, CA on June 20, 1946, partway through the tour. Nanton's death was the first for an active musician in the orchestra, and was a huge loss for the organization both socially and musically. Ellington publicly declared that he would not immediately replace him after his death; Tyree Glenn eventually filled his chair.
To quote his friend trumpeter Rex Stewart, "Nanton's playing differed from that of virtually all other trombonists in jazz. His sound was a voice unique to the instrument, and although many of his fellows played sweeter, faster, louder, and with considerably more technique, still Tricky possessed the gift of communication that is the essence of any music." The recorded evidence backs up this claim; Nanton was not only a cornerstone of the Ellington sound for two decades but one of the most innovative trombonists in early Swing Era jazz.